Behind the Scenes at My Pop Studio: An Interview with Renee Hobbs

Much of my attention on this blog so far has centered around issues of participatory culture -- the ways fans and consumers are taking media in their own hands whether through user-generated content or through exerting a collective influence over the circulation and reception of media content. I have suggested that the new media landscape -- and the social structures and cultural practices which grow up around it -- creates unique opportunities for everyday people to get involved as media-makers and as they do so, we all benefit through the increased diversification and innovation that results. To insure that every kid in America is able to fully participate within this emerging culture, though, there needs to be a greater commitment to media literacy education. By media literacy, I mean not simply the ability to critically interprete the images and stories that circulate in our culture, but also the ability to produce media (and to understand all of the factors that shape the production of media). We would not consider someone to be literate in the traditional sense if they could read but not write. We shouldn't consider someone to be media literate if they can consume but not produce media. Indeed, the greatest insights about media -- even mass media -- come when we are able to step into the role of media producer and understand the choices that shape the media that we consume.

Several weeks ago, Renee Hobbs helped to launch a fascinating new site -- My Pop Studio -- which takes this premise as a starting point. The site targets young middle school and early high school aged girls, encouraging them to reflect more deeply about some of the media they consume -- pop music, reality television, celebrity magazines, and the like -- by stepping into the role of media producers. The site offers a range of engaging activities -- including designing your own animated pop star and scripting their next sensation, re-editing footage for a reality television show, designing the layout for a teen magazine. Along the way, they are asked to reflect on the messages the media offers about what it is like to be a teen girl in America today and to think about the economic factors shaping the culture that has become so much a part of their everyday interactions with their friends. If you have a daughter, granddaughter, niece or neighbor who falls into that age bracket (and who may be looking increasingly bored with the same ol', same ol' by this point in the summer), you would be doing them a favor by sending them to this site. (Full disclosure: I was one of a number of leading media and child development experts Renee and her team consulted in developing this project.)

I wanted to use my blog today to alert my readers to this new project and share some of the thinking that went into it. Renee Hobbs has spent more than 20 years of her career focused on promoting media literacy education -- through schools, after school programs, and now, through this imaginative intervention into popular culture itself. Hobbs directs the Media Education Lab at Temple University and is a co-founder of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA), the national membership organization that hosts the National Media Education Conference. She co-directed the Ph.D. program in Mass Media and Communication at Temple University in 2004-2005 and currently hosts the Media Smart Seminars, a free professional development program for Philadelphia educators, media professionals and community leaders. She's one of the people in this field I admire the most: someone who remains concerned about the issues young people face in their long transition into adulthood and who seeks ways to empower young people to take charge of the media that surrounds them.

She was nice enough to agree to answer some of my questions about the project.

You've been involved with media literacy for a number of years. What do you see as some of the most important challenges facing media literacy at the present time?

Right now, there are a number of opportunities and challenges. One great opportunity is the impending retirement of millions of K-12 teachers. Over the next 10 years, there will be huge shift in the demographics of the teaching profession, and this will help media literacy. Younger teachers have different attitudes about media and technology than older teachers. They are aware that popular film, when used skillfully in the classroom, can promote rich learning experiences. These teachers are already using materials they haveobtained from the Internet--- and they recognize the need for critical thinking skills about images, media, popular culture and technology.

This leads to a great challenge. Lots of teachers are using media and technology in the classroom, but not always in ways that promote critical thinking and communication skills. Many teachers use audio-visual media as a reward or a treat. Other teachers send their students to the computer lab--- but do not create assignments that are structured to provide rich learning experiences. As a result, a lot of what is happening with media and technology in K-12 education is not building the kinds of skills that are important for success in the world outside the classroom. You can see my recent article, "Non-Optimal Uses of Media and Technology in the Classroom," from Learning, Media and Technology for more on this issue. Over half of classroom teachers say that film and television is used in non-educational ways in schools. This includes as a substitute teacher, for "downtime," as a reward, or to fill time. That's a problem that must be addressed, because educational leaders will never accept media literacy as fully legitimate until the problem of misuse of media and technology is confronted head-on.

Another important challenge is the need to keep media literacy relevant to the continually changing media environment of the 21st century. As media literacy becomes institutionalized in K-12 settings, for example, the curriculum tends to freeze. In some schools, students in 2006 are learning about how to critically analyze news and advertising using artifacts and examples from the early 1990s. Sometimes this works--- but often it diminishes one of the major strengths of media literacy: its perceived relevance in bridging the gap between the classroom and the culture. But this problem is challenging to address, because it's hard for teachers to continually adapt their curricula to match the changing media environment. Few have the training, knowledge, resources, time or tools to do this.

This project speaks directly to young girls through the use of images and activities inspired by popular culture. What are the advantages of this approach over one which is focused more on intervention through educational or civic institutions?

One advantage is obvious-- no gatekeepers are required. Girls will learn about My Pop Studio from their friends. Parents and teachers may steer a girl toward the site, but it's also likely that girls will share the site with their peers. Media literacy education has typically been "leader-driven," as individual teachers, parents or youth leaders initiate it with children and young people. My Pop Studio is an approach to media literacy that girls can experience independently.

There's another advantage as well. My Pop Studio makes an assumption about young people that comes from developmental psychology: that play and learning are related to each other. Play can help promote confidence and build a sense of social competence. Girls already participate in popular culture--- My Pop Studio aims to re-frame popular culture in ways that can be powerful for girls.

What do you see as the most important issues confronting young girls today? How do you see this project as addressing those issues?

Adolescence is a challenging time of life. A strange thing happens between age 10 and age 15 for many American girls. At age 10, girls are confident, spunky, outspoken, and see themselves as healthy, capable and strong. By age 15, 30% of teen girls are smokers. Many have chosen to avoid more rigorous courses in math and science, even when they have the capability to perform well in these classes. Teen pregnancy rates, while declining since the 1990s, are still high, especially among young women living in poverty. Tween and teen girls experience higher rates of depression. More than 4 million teen girls shoplift. Nutrition and body image are problems, too. The average teen girl guzzles 21 ounces of soda pop a day and less than 14 ounces of milk. Finally, the intense peer culture of adolescence is stressful: material possessions and social relationships take center stage. The hierarchies and gamesmanship can be overwhelming, exhausting and hard on the ego.

My Pop Studio gives girls an opportunity to be competent at creative activities involving technology, and a sense of competence is important for adolescents. The public health literature informs us that a sense of competence is a "protective factor" that can keep girls healthy during adolescence. The website lets girls take on, in a playful way, the role of a multimedia producer. This gives them the opportunity to feel the power of making creative choices that result in publishable products. At the website, girls can make their own pop star, reflect on values messages in media, and get feedback from peers on their creative choices. They can edit a teen TV program and compose a scene. They can compose a multi-page magazine spread and reflect on how digital images create unreal realities, depicting the bodies and lives of young women in a highly unrealistic way. On My Pop Studio, girls can create and share web comics about how digital media affect their own social relationships. Girls can comment on various kinds of social situations that occur with digital media. They can create their own comics, read comics created by other girls, and use a simple blogging tool to comment on them.

During a time when feelings of confidence diminish, these high-interest activities may help girls to continue to see themselves as capable, competent and part of a creative community, able to make good choices about their lifestyle and health.

How did you choose which forms of popular culture to address through this project?

We looked at the literature on the media consumption habits of children and adolescent girls aged 9 - 14. We talked to over 50 girls who participated in My Pop Studio focus groups from five geographically diverse sites around the nation. That's why popular music takes center stage in My Pop Studio. We looked carefully at girls' feelings of attachment to celebrities. We wanted to tackle issues related to celebrity culture, because this topic has not been well-explored in the context of media literacy pedagogy. Because girls this age are beginning to read fashion magazines, we wanted to address issues of body image and digital image manipulation. Although girls this age are not (generally) using social networking sites, they are feeling social pressure to own cell phones, watch R-rated videos, and many are quite active with IM/chat. So we wanted an opportunity to explore the diversity of family attitudes about media/technology use and encourage girls to reflect on how new media create new kinds of social relationships with family and peers. We wanted to focus on forms of popular culture that were most available to all girls, regardless of their families' economic situation.

How do you balance entertainment and education goals when working on a project like this?

The site has to be entertaining, or girls won't play with it. Play and learning are related, so the language of the site provides a "behind-the-scenes" perspective to offer information about issues in media industries -- minus the didacticism or preachiness.

We tried to build educational goals into the deep structure of the activities, as in Pop Star Producer, where in making choices about your pop star, you learn 1) that there are many choices to be made and 2) that different choices have consequences--- they affect how people interpret your character. Most girls in this age group are not aware of how media messages are constructed--- stuff just appears on the TV set, or on the radio, or in the magazines, or on the Web. These activities provide an "aha" about the constructedness of media messages just by playing.

At My Pop Studio, we have a learning community where younger girls participate in dialogue with older girls. Temple University undergraduate students enrolled in a "Mass Media and Children" course will be responsible for maintaining and updating the site, and they will comment on girls' creations and participate in the creative community. Undergraduates can share their ideas with younger girls, which will extend the learning of both groups.

We also created downloadable lesson plans that can be used by parents in informal, home-based learning as well as with middle-school students in a computer lab. The lesson plans show how My Pop Studio activities can be used to promote rich dialogue, reading, writing, and discussion to strengthen critical thinking and communication skills.

Several of your activities here are focused on remixing media content. Remixing has been a controversial aspect of contemporary youth culture. Do you see remixing as a media literacy skill? Why or why not?

Remixing is now an important part of contemporary media production. In remixing, media texts, now at the center of our cultural environment, get re-interpreted by other creative people through techniques of collage, editing, and juxtaposition. Remixing is a type of creative expression. Through remixing, people can generate new ideas. It can be a vehicle for people to comment upon the role of media and technology in society.

Remixing can strengthen media literacy skills because it can deepen people's awareness of an author's purpose and context. Context is often not well-understood as a component of meaning. Through strategic juxtaposition and shifts in context, messages change their meanings. Remixing illustrates a key concept of media literacy: that meaning is in people, not in texts.